Angelou: Chapter 11

Chapter 11: California

Momma told us one day that she was taking us to California. She

explained that we were growing up, that we needed to be with

our parents, that Uncle Willie was crippled, that she was getting

too old. All true, but none of those truths satisfied our need for

The Truth. The Store and the rooms in back became a goingaway

factory. Momma sat at the sewing machine for hours,

making and remaking clothes for use in California.

Whatever the real reason, The Truth, for taking us to

California, I shall always think it lay mostly in an incident in


which Bailey had the leading part. On an afternoon a few weeks

before Momma revealed her plan to take us West, Bailey came

into the Store shaking. His face was no longer black but a dirty,

colorless gray. As we always did when we entered the Store, he

walked behind the candy counter and leaned on the cash register.

Uncle Willie had sent him on an errand to whitefolks’ town and

he wanted an explanation for Bailey’s late return. After a brief

moment our uncle could see that something was wrong and,

feeling unable to cope, he called Momma from the kitchen.

“What’s the matter, Bailey Junior?”

He said nothing. I knew when I saw him that it would be

useless to ask anything while he was in that state. It meant that

he had seen or heard of something so ugly or frightening that

he couldn’t make himself respond as a result. He had explained

when we were young that when things were very bad his soul

went to sleep. When it awoke, the fearful thing had gone away.

I had to swear that when his soul was sleeping, I would never

try to wake it; the shock might make it go to sleep for ever. So

I left him alone, and after a while Momma had to leave him

alone too.

When he felt better he asked Uncle Willie what colored

people had done to white people to make them hate us. Uncle

Willie, who was not used to explaining things because he was

like Momma, said little except that “colored people hadn’t even

bothered a hair on whitefolks’ heads.”

Bailey said he saw a man, a colored man, who was dead.

Uncle Willie asked, “W h o— who was it?”

Bailey said, “When I passed the prison, some men had just

fished him out of the lake. He was wrapped in a sheet, all rolled

  1. Then a white man walked over and pulled the sheet off. The

man was on his back but the white man stuck his foot under the

sheet and rolled him over on his stomach. He had no color at all,

and he was blown up like a ball. The colored men backed away,


and I did, too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and

grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”

Uncle Willie replied, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t

know us. How can they hate us? They’re mostly scared.”

Momma asked if Bailey had recognized the man, but he didn’t

hear her.

“Mr. Bubba told me I was too young to see something like

that and I ought to go straight home, but I had to stay. Then the

white man called us closer. He said, ‘O.K., you boys, take him

into the prison. When the Sheriff comes, he’ll inform his family.

This is one nigger nobody has to worry about anymore. He ain’t

going nowhere else.’ Then the men picked up corners of the

sheet, but since nobody wanted to get close to the man they held

only the ends, and he almost rolled out on the ground. The

white man called me to come and help too.”

Momma exploded. “Who was it?” She made herself clear.

“Who was the white man?”

Bailey couldn’t let go of the horror. “I picked up a side of the

sheet and walked in the prison with the men. I walked in the

prison carrying a rotten dead Negro.” His voice was ancient with

shock. His eyes were huge.

“The white man pretended he was going to lock us all in

there, but Mr. Bubba said, ‘Oh, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t

done nothing wrong.’ Then the white man laughed and said we

boys couldn’t take a joke, and opened the door.” He breathed his

relief. “I was glad to get out of there. The prison, and the

prisoners screaming that they didn’t want any dead nigger in

there with them. That he’d make the place smell bad. They called

the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done

nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with

us, and a dead one, too.’Then they laughed. They all laughed like

there was something funny.”

Bailey was talking sofast he forgot to stutter. He was thinking


about a mystery that young Southern Black boys start to solve, try

to solve, from the time they’re seven years old until their death.

The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate. His experience

raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority

and aggressive arrogance. Could Uncle Willie, a Black man,

Southern, and crippled, hope to answer the questions, asked and

unasked? Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and

the ways of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose life

depended on him not truly understanding the mystery? Most

certainly not.

They both responded characteristically. Uncle Willie said

something like he didn’t know what the world was coming to,

and Momma prayed, “God rest his soul, poor man.” I’m sure she

began planning the details of our California trip that night.

Our transportation was Momma’s major concern for many

weeks. She had arranged with a railroad employee to provide her

with a pass in exchange for groceries. The pass allowed a reduced

fare only, and even that had to be approved. So we had to wait

until white people we would never see, in offices we would never

visit, signed and stamped and mailed the pass back to Momma.

My fare had to be paid in cash. Taking that much money out of

our cash register was financially difficult. Momma decided Bailey

couldn’t accompany us, but that he would follow within a month

or so when the bills were paid. Although our mother now lived

in San Francisco, Momma must have felt it wiser to gofirst to

Los Angeles, where our father was. She had me write letters,

telling me what to write, advising them both that we were on

our way.

And we were on our way, but unable to say when. Our clothes

were washed, ironed, and packed. Neighbors, who understood

the difficulties of travel, said goodbye a million times. A widowed


friend of Mommas had agreed to take care of Uncle Willie.

After thousands of false departures, at last we left Stamps.

My sorrow was limited to sadness at separating from Bailey for

a month (we had never been separated), the imagined loneliness

of Uncle Willie (at thirty-five, he’d never been separated from his

mother), and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn’t miss

Mrs. Flowers, because she had given me her secret word which

would help me all my life: books.

I didn’t actually think about meeting Mother until the last day

of our journey. I was “going to California.” To oranges and

sunshine and movie stars and earthquakes and (finally I realized)

to Mother. My old guilt returned. I wondered if Mr. Freeman’s

name would be mentioned, or if I would be expected to say

something about the situation myself. I certainly couldn’t ask

Momma, and Bailey was a million miles away.

I was unprepared to meet my mother. Too soon she stood

before me, smaller than I remembered but more wonderful than

any memory. She wore a light-brown suit, shoes to match, and a

hat with a feather in the band. She patted my face with her

gloved hands. She kissed and laughed and rushed about collecting

our coats and organizing our luggage. She easily took care of the

details. I was amazed again at how wonderful she was.

We moved into an apartment, and I slept on a sofa that was

changed at night into a large comfortable bed. Mother stayed in

Los Angeles long enough to get us settled. Then she returned to

San Francisco tofind a place to live for her suddenly larger


Momma and Bailey (he joined us a month after our arrival)

and I lived in Los Angeles for about six months while our

permanent living arrangements were being finalized. Daddy

Bailey visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags of fruit. He

was like a Sun God, bringing warmth and light to our lives.

When the arrangements for our move north were completed,


Momma gave us the shocking news that she was going back to

Arkansas. She had done her job. She was needed by Uncle Willie.

We had our own parents at last. At least we were all in the same


There were days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was fine

to say that we would be with our parents, but who were they?

Would they be more severe with our mistakes than she? That

would be bad. Or less severe? That would be even worse. Would

we learn to speak the fast language of our Mexican neighbors? I

doubted that, and I doubted even more that I would ever find

out what they laughed about so loudly and so often.

I would have been willing to return to Stamps even without

Bailey. But Momma left for Arkansas without me.

Mother drove us toward San Francisco over the big white

highway that seemed like it would never end. She talked

constantly and pointed out places of interest. She told humorous

stories and tried to win our attention. But her personality, and

the fact that she was our mother, had done the job so successfully

that her efforts were unnecessary. Nothing could have been more

magical than to have found her at last, and have her completely

to ourselves in the closed world of a moving car.

Although we were both delighted, Bailey and I were aware of

her nervousness. The knowledge that we had the power to upset

that godlike person made us look at each other and smile. It also

made her human.

We spent a few months in an Oakland apartment which had a

bathtub in the kitchen and was near enough to the train station

to shake at the arrival and departure of every train. In many ways

it was like being in St. Louis again—and Grandma Baxter was

again living with us.

We went to school and nofamily member questioned the

amount or quality of our work. We went to a playground which

had a basketball court, a football field, and table tennis tables in


shelters with roofs. On Sundays, instead of going to church, we

went to the movies.

I slept with Grandmother Baxter. One evening after going to

bed normally, I was awakened by a shaking. I saw my mother

kneeling by my bed. She brought her face close to my ear.

“Ritie,” she whispered, “Ritie. Come, but be very quiet.” Then

she quietly rose and left the room. Dutifully, I followed. The light

coming through the half-opened kitchen door showed Baileys

pajamaed legs hanging from the covered bathtub. The clock on

the dining-room table said 2:30. I had never been up at that


I looked questioningly at Bailey and knew by his response that

there was nothing tofear. Then I quickly thought about the list

of important events. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday, or April Fool’s

Day, or Halloween, but it was something.

Mother closed the kitchen door and told me to sit beside

Bailey. She put her hands on her waist and said we had been

invited to a party.

Was that why she woke us in the middle of the night! Neither

of us said anything.

She continued, “I am giving a party and you are my honored

and only guests.”

She opened the oven and took out a pan of her cookies and

showed us a pot of chocolate milk on the back of the stove. We

could only laugh at our beautiful and wild mother. When Bailey

and I started laughing, she joined in, but she kept her finger in

front of her mouth to try to quiet us.

We were served formally, and she apologized for not having a

band to play for us but said she’d sing instead. She sang and

danced. What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and

often, especially if the child is mature enough to understand the



World War II started on a Sunday afternoon when I was on my

way to the movies. People in the streets shouted, “We’re at war.

We’ve declared war on Japan.”

I ran all the way home, unsure whether I would be bombed

before I reached Bailey and Mother. Grandmother Baxter calmed

my anxiety by explaining that America would not be bombed,

not as long as Franklin Delano ‘Roosevelt was president. He

knew what he was doing.

Soon after, Mother married Daddy Clidell, who became the

first father I would know. He was a successful businessman, and

he and Mother moved us to San Francisco. Grandmother

remained in the big house in Oakland.

In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fillmore

district experienced a visible change. The Asian population

disappeared. As the Japanese left, soundlessly and without protest,

the Negroes entered. Japanese shops were taken over by Negro

businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes

for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. No member of my family

and none of the family friends ever mentioned the absent

Japanese. It was as if they had never owned or lived in the houses

that were now ours.

The sense of change, the lack of permanence of life in

wartime, and the awkward behavior of the recent arrivals helped

to lessen my own sense of not belonging. In San Francisco, for

the first time, I saw myself as part of something. I didn’t identify

with the newcomers, nor with the Black natives of San

Francisco, nor with the whites or even the Asians. I identified

with the times and the city. The feeling of fear that San Francisco

would be bombed strengthened my sense of belonging. Hadn’t I

always thought that life was just one great risk?

To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, used to the South and


Southern Black lifestyle, the city was a state of beauty and a state

of freedom. I became free of fears. Feeling safe, I was certain that

no one loved San Francisco as I did.

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. []. Retrieved from